Sunday, November 2, 2014

Medieval Sorcery

By E.M. Powell

At this time of year, there is much talk of witches, with large numbers of people happy to don a pointy black hat and party hard. Medieval people would have been unlikely to join in. The matter of anyone who practised magic was complex and they would have recognised the concept of a sorcerer rather than a witch.
© 2014 E.M. Powell 

In medieval Europe two forms of magic existed: natural and demonic. Natural magic used the hidden powers in nature, helping with cures and protection. Demonic magic was a perversion of religion, practised it was believed by those who had turned away from God and instead to the devil. It was the practise of sorcerers.

The Practice of Sorcery

It was a widely-held belief that sorcerers could curse somebody with words, leading to illness or death. Sorcerers were also thought to be able to cause animal death, crop failure or an adverse change in the weather. The evil words could be a corrupted blessing, or a simple appeal to the devil. The supposed victim was not usually present at the utterance of curses.

© 2014 E.M. Powell 
Far more useful evidence to those making accusations of demonic magic were physical objects left on or near their property by the sorcerer. These objects were considered to have magical properties that could inflict harm. They could include animal bodies, mysterious powders, human faeces or even wood from a gallows. Poisoned food was also a frequent accusation.

In 1326, Pope John XXII wrote in his letter, Sorcery and the Inquisitors, of many objects that could serve the sorcerer’s purpose:  ‘Grievingly we observe…that many who are Christian in name only…sacrifice to demons, adore them, make or have made images, rings, mirrors, phials, or other things for magic purposes and bind themselves to demons.’

He had experienced several attempts on his life, including one by poison and alleged sorcery.

© 2014 E.M. Powell 
There are also records of image magic. A sorcerer in fourteenth century Coventry was accused of making a wax image of a neighbour, sticking spikes into it that caused the man to go mad with a pain in his head and finishing him off by driving the spike through the image’s heart.

It was widely believed that impotence or lack of sexual desire was caused by sorcery. If a man consumed forty ants boiled in daffodil juice, then lifelong impotence would follow. Physician Arnold of Villanova wrote a treatise On Bewitchments around 1300 in which he gave numerous remedies. They include ‘fumigation of the bedchamber with the bile of a fish and smearing the walls with the blood of a black dog.’ That would indeed provide a certain ambience to a love nest.

© 2014 E.M. Powell 
Some accounts of medieval sorcery are on a far grander scale.

Guibert of Nogent, writing around 1115, gives details of the heretics of Soissons. Meeting in underground chambers, they would light candles and then do something unmentionable to naked women with them. Indiscriminate sexual intercourse then took place. Any babies born from these acts were then allegedly burned at later meetings and their ashes baked into bread which was eaten. The strong overtones of blasphemy in this account are very clear.

William of Malmesbury (d 1142) wrote an account of the Sorceress of Berkeley, who had died in 1065. He describes her as ‘a woman addicted to sorcery…skilled in ancient augury, she was excessively gluttonous, perfectly lascivious, setting no bounds to her debaucheries.’ She repented on her death bed and begged for her body to be saved from Satan, with her corpse sewed up in a stag’s skin, placed in a stone coffin and weighted with lead and iron and secured with chains. It was no good. A devil broke into the church and made off with her on the back of a barbed black horse.

© 2014 E.M. Powell 
The legend of the Sorceress of Ryazan dates from 1237. At Ryazan, a town on the eastern border of medieval Russia, a ‘woman of astonishing ugliness’ arrived with other riders on a snowy morning, demanding tithes. She was spurned. A few months later, a horde of murdering Mongols sacked the town.

Sorcery Trials and Punishment 

Secular laws and Church laws/canons attempted to tackle the problem of sorcery, and mutually influenced each other.  Secular laws dealt with the crime of magic and attempted to address harm done to people by magic.

Penalties included execution. The Church could order penance for the sin of magic and/or could excommunicate the offender. Excommunication, with the threat of eternal condemnation to hell, was as terrifying as a death sentence.

From Sorcery to Witchcraft

© 2014 E.M. Powell 
A sermon preached by Bernardino of Siena 1427 encourages people to cry out ‘To the flames! To the flames!’ if someone offers to cure the sick with magic. He also encouraged people to report sorcery, because if they did not, they shared in the guilt.

Sorcery trials increased in the fourteenth century, but the latter half of the fifteenth century saw a dramatic increase. Heinrich Kramer published Malleus Maleficarum (Hammer of Witches, c 1486), the most important medieval treatise on witchcraft. It strongly emphasised the demonic element in sorcery and (tragically) the conspiratorial nature of witchcraft.

Medieval sorcery was evolving into witchcraft. And in its name, around 50,000 women and men were executed by burning at the stake or hanging from the fifteenth to the eighteenth century.

How interesting that John of Salisbury, (d 1180) secretary to Archbishop Thomas Becket, wrote in 1154 of ‘the belief in evil nocturnal assemblies, where infants are murdered and eaten by witches. Such beliefs also state that the infants are granted mercy by the witch-ruler, who returns them unharmed to their cradles. Who could be so blind as not to see in all this a pure manifestation of wickedness created by sporting demons?’ 
© 2014 E.M. Powell 

He answers his own question with a great deal of sense:
‘Indeed, it is obvious from this that it is only poor old women and the simpleminded kinds of men who enter into these beliefs.’

What a tragedy that his view did not prevail.


Kieckhefer, Richard: Magic in the Middle Ages, Cambridge University Press (2000)

Kelly, John: The Great Mortality, Harper Perennial (2006)
Kors & Peters (eds.): Witchcraft in Europe 400-1700, University of Pennsylvania Press (2001)
Lindahl, C., McNamara, J & Lindow, J. (eds.): Medieval Folklore, Oxford University Press (2002)
Maxwell-Stuart, P.G.: Witchcraft- A History, Tempus Publishing Limited (2004)

E.M. Powell’s medieval thrillers The Fifth Knight and The Blood of the Fifth Knight have been #1 Amazon bestsellers. Born and raised in the Republic of Ireland into the family of Michael Collins (the legendary revolutionary and founder of the Irish Free State), she lives in northwest England with her husband, daughter and a Facebook-friendly dog. She blogs for EHFA, reviews for the Historical Novel Society and contributes to The Big Thrill.

Book #3 in the series, The Lord of Ireland, based on the Lord John's disastrous 1185 campaign, will be published by Thomas & Mercer in 2016. Find out more at


  1. "Forty ants boiled in daffodil juice"? Who would eat them? Especially if they were known to cause impotence. Still, it's very sobering to see the beliefs of those times. Scary. I learned a lot from this post.

    1. Thanks, Elizabeth and indeed it begs the question of ingestion, although masking substances in other food and drink was often part of the allegation. And I found a whole number of curses and crimes that were alleged to have caused impotence, many of which are far more stomach-churning than that one!

    2. More stomach-churning? The babies' ashes baked in the bread sounds pretty horrific. A fascinating post, Elaine. Thank you for sharing!

    3. Glad you found it interesting, Char. Many of the accounts of sorcery proclaimed a 'truth' that was highly unlikely. The ashes one is one of those. But of course, it was believed by many and used for persecution.


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